Publishing and The (Un)predictability of Reader Tastes
I don’t know if familiarity breeds content, but it definitely breeds myopia, and nothing crystallized this for me better than Amazon’s recent announcement that they would begin paying Kindle Select authors who participate in Amazon’s subscription service, Kindle Unlimited, by the number of pages read, rather than by the number of “books” loaned. “Books” gets the air quotes here because of the way the previous system has given rise to authors publishing what are essentially chapter-long texts so they can loan more volumes, and therefore possibly make more money. And “read” gets special emphasis because, as Peter Wayner explains in this Atlantic article,
Amazon’s letter to writers who publish through its Kindle Select program explained that the formula was changing because of a concern “that paying the same for all books regardless of length may not provide a strong enough alignment between the interests of authors and readers.” Amazon is being clever: While the authors of big, long, and important books felt that they were shortchanged by a pay-by-the-borrow formula, they probably didn’t expect that Amazon would take their proposal a step further. Instead of paying the most ambitious, long-winded authors for each page written, Amazon will pay them for each page read.
Another element that needs highlighting is the fact that the new formula applies only to self-published books:
While many larger publishers’ offerings are included in these programs, the details of those deals have not been made public. Their authors may or may not be paid by the page. Amazon’s announcement only says that the new formula applies to Kindle Select books that are self-published and distributed through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program.
While both traditionally published and self-published authors have called out Amazon for exercising a disproportionately strong arm in the literary marketplace, the retailer has also become a laboratory, of sorts, both for authors trying to maximize their chances of visibility and sales, and for those trying to understand how and why certain books sell better than others. In other words, as much as Amazon may be affecting book sales (and lending), the retailer is also a valuable resource for authors and others who seek to better understand the commercial book market.
And now that Amazon has changed the rules for self-published authors with books enrolled in KU, there are myriad predictions about how this will affect the books that are both written and rewarded within the system. Which, of course, gives rise to new strategies by authors who want to “game” the system, aka maximize their KU income.
Among the advocates for this new system is Hugh Howey, who argues that the old system was not “fair,” because a reader had get through more pages in a longer work than a shorter one to make it count as “read” under the old system.
As a reader, I find this whole discussion frustratingly overwrought, in part because all this talk of strategizing financial success for self-published authors strikes me as uncomfortably similar to the ways in which traditional publishers have strategized success, especially in the way both appear to be chasing trends.
Which brings me to my initial point about myopia. Why myopia? Because one of the things that I think we take too much for granted in a lot of these discussions is that we’re not really talking about all types of books and publishing – we’re primarily and specifically talking about commercial fiction. In her 2014 Indie Earnings report, Brenda Hiatt notes that
Genre seems to be as big a factor in earnings as total number of titles. Not being a statistician, I haven’t done a true statistical analysis, but I can report that those earning upwards of $250,000 in 2014 fell predominantly into three genres:
Contemporary Romance, Paranormal Romance, and Romantic Suspense/Mystery (in that order). Earnings-wise, Historical Romance appears to be next in line, followed by such genres as Erotic Romance, Science Fiction/Fantasy and Young Adult (order is less certain here as fewer authors of these genres responded).
I don’t know whether those precise categories still hold solid, but the larger point is that the focus is on those genres that translate and are selling well in digital, and those tend to be works of genre fiction. And while we may all know that’s what we’re talking about, and that therefore we don’t need to clarify and qualify, there also seems to be a tendency to inadvertently characterize the universe of commercial fiction as The Universe of Books and Publishing. So when we talk about books prices and production quality and measures of commercial success, comparing a work of genre fiction to, say, a coffee-table art book, or a work of political analysis or historical biography is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Even classic and literary fiction, which may not be genres, per se, have historically, been distinguished from genre fiction, fairly or unfairly.
Why is this important? For a number of reasons, starting with the way commercial fiction has been driven by an expectation of commercial, aka financial, success. Traditional publishers, for example, have historically used the profits from bigger books to finance “smaller” books, aka books of perceived limited appeal like literary fiction, poetry, and the like. Both traditional and self-publishing openly link the success of a book to its profitability more than, say, the quality of reviews it garners or its masterful craftsmanship. In fact, reader satisfaction is often measured in terms of sales numbers, which in turn helps shape and fuel future trends, justified as “giving readers what they want,” despite the fact that the vast majority of readers don’t even know if they’ll like a book when they buy it. If you’ve ever been left out of a current trend, you know how completely unreasonable this persistent correlation between sales numbers and reader satisfaction can be.
Readers feed into the monetizing of success, too, with our attention to the relationship between price and value. With genre fiction offering so many choices, and with those choices also competing with other types of entertainment, cost is a factor. I will often pay more for a book I will use for scholarly research or for, say, a beautifully produced cookbook, than I will for a digital work of commercial fiction. Why? Because I buy works of commercial fiction at rates of at least five to ten times what I buy other types of books (I buy A LOT of commercial fiction).
Then there is the problem of uniqueness and novelty. When you look for a new cookbook, for example, do you want the same recipes over and over? Do you want to read the same biographical history, the same political or economic analysis? Yet there seems to be a perception that readers want the same genre fiction tropes, characters, titles, and covers over and over, especially in Romance. And with each new breakout book comes hundreds of imitators and derivations and variations on the same themes and tropes and characters, etc. And it’s not just in traditional publishing.
In a recent blog post on “Gatekeepers for Indie Publishing,” Hugh Howey argues that the promotional author service BookBub would make a good model for a self-publishing gatekeeper, because
. . . its users trust them. The works are vetted, and however imperfect this system, it results in a high level of trust and satisfaction. From what I understand, BookBub looks for a minimum number of Amazon reviews, a minimum average ranking, and solid cover art/blurb/etc. For readers, a BookBub promotion serves as a stamp of approval.
Now think about this for a minute: self-published authors should welcome a “gatekeeping” system based on Amazon reviews and sales rank. From a system that many self-published authors are actively attempting to “game.” There are many legitimate ways in which authors attempt to boost sales, from promotional pricing to offering review copies in exchange for honest reviews. And then there are some not so legitimate strategies like buying positive reviews. Then there are strageies that are not overtly unethical, but which are definitely exploitive, like using large font and wide margins to make a print book longer or not clearly indicating that a short work is a novella or short story. But legitimate or not, using the commercial popularity of an author’s work to recommend other books to readers is basically the same thing as traditional publishing’s reliance on sales numbers to determine whether an author will get another contract or what types of books should be acquired.
In fact, Howey even echoes the language of traditional publishing in claiming, “[t]he goal of a promo list like BookBub is to serve the readers.” First of all, promo is an author concept, not a reader concept, and it primarily serves authors. But more generally, Howey’s confidence mirrors traditional publishing’s insistence that readers drive the publishing market. I think the real question here is whether there’s a difference between an editor and a “promo list,” and whether readers would rather trust an editor or a service that uses reader feedback to monetize author participation — like Goodreads now does (I hope my own answer is clear from the way I phrased the distinction).
So as the self-publishing of commercial fiction continues to grow, I have to wonder why self-publishing believes that it can predict reader tastes and preferences any better than traditional publishing, especially when the little research that has been done suggests that it’s hybrid authors (aka those who also have experience with traditional publishing) who are earning more through self-publishing, and that the majority of self-published authors are still not earning a living wage. I worry that some of the cheerleading around all the money there is to be made just adds unrealistic pressure that’s pushing authors even more sharply to chase rather than make trends, and to function in ways that the movement consistently criticizes traditional publishing for – playing it safe and putting more energy into promo than craft, for example.
Ideally, the commercial interests of authors can blend nicely with the reading tastes and preferences of readers, especially when both are well-satisfied. But as long as success in commercial fiction is measured in terms of sales and income – in both traditional and self-publishing – there is a greater likelihood of risk aversion, and of following rather than leading. Because I doubt there will ever be a way to accurately predict what will or won’t sell, but the (relatively) few outlying blockbusters will likely continue to help dictate market trends. And as more authors enter the market, and competition becomes even fiercer, prices may continue to skew downward, pushing many authors right out of the market. And how many of those authors will be risk-takers, or those intentionally writing books likely to have more limited appeal? It’s true that self-publishing is currently doing something different from traditional publishing in the sense that the bar to market entry is extremely low. But from a reader’s perspective, it can feel like self-publishing is focused more on crafting a better game, rather than a better book. And that is not about serving the readers – that’s about serving the publishers. In other words, business as usual.